I hated studying for certification tests. Right after college, I took one of the more reputable certifications for strength and conditioning. While preparing, it wasn't very reassuring to memorize concepts the test-makers thought was more important than I did.
I was arrogant for sure, just like any twenty-something-year-old meathead, but to mount a straw defense, I already had some real experience in formal strength and conditioning. I knew that many of the answers to the test questions depended on the situation.
Theory and lab results don’t always pan out in a practical situation.
One of these theoretical ideas that never sat right with me was standard rest times. Most of the textbooks would have strict guidelines for how long you should rest between strength training exercises or conditioning rounds and bouts.
I dug into why they were recommended and found it to be arbitrary.
Textbooks would assert that:
- When weight-training for strength, you need to rest for 2-5 minutes between sets.
- When doing circuits for endurance, 30-second rests between the exercises were best.
Heavier weight means you need longer rest time to recover and repeat—that sort of makes sense.
I think the textbook's authors did not clarify the rest times regarding recovery or what to push?
Instead, it would help if you had answers to:
- Did the specific durations challenge your body’s capacity to endure stress and recover from it?
- Were they recommended because anyone, regardless of training history, could recover completely with that specific rest time and be ready to push hard again?
Those are two very different concepts, and I’ll explain.
What’s the Purpose of the Workout?
If you want to feel strong or tireless at the start of each set, round, or circuit, you have to pay careful attention to your rest period.
If you want to challenge how much intensive work you can do and resist fatigue, you adapt to the exercise's stress and limit your rest.
You need to know how much rest you need first to understand how to shorten it strategically.
- Sometimes you should be fully recovered and feel your best for each set. This recovery is the best practice for training compound-lifts with heavier weights.
- Sometimes, training isn’t to feel the best or lift the heaviest weights possible during the training session.
- Sometimes it’s best to work at a deficit during an individual training session to cause a long-term gain.
Training the endurance and tolerance of fast-twitch muscle fibers to curb fatigue is part of the foundation for your capacity for strength.
These fast-twitch types are the very ones that dominate strength and power movements.
Alactic capacity, the general capability to maintain high-intensity movement, makes up this foundation. To train these abilities, you need to monitor, reduce, and alter how long you rest between exertion periods in a workout as you become stronger and more conditioned.
Does a Real Standard Exist?
The recommended rest times for heavy strength training are usually based on the length of time the Central Nervous System (CNS) and energy substrates, which cause muscle contraction, need to recover.
It makes sense, but I’d strongly disagree that the average rest times given in the textbooks are standard for most people. I assume these studies take place in laboratory conditions.
I can’t emphasize enough how many people I’ve seen not fit this model in a practical setting.
The values, at the least, need to be looked at and tested further. I’m basing my view not just on what people tell me but on my concrete observations of how long it took them to repeat exercises with the same effort and intensity. And, I’ve seen these deviations in both inexperienced and experienced clients.
Textbooks for the associations that certify coaches usually mention that rest times can be changed and provide a range for this.
Still, I’ve never seen any solid recommendations on how, when, or how much to change it.
The Breath Can Tell Us Something a Device Can't
Technology has created some great tools since these textbooks were written that monitor fundamental physiological shifts and monitor recovery. Heart rate monitors and devices that track heart rate variability are some of them.
While having data to track is invaluable, I think we have a built-in regulator that we can put to use in deciding how long to rest—the breath.
Observing the breath can tell us something that a device can’t.
It gives clues to how psychologically ready we are to take another heavy set or go through another intense exercise period. Controlled breathing can calm the body and mind, and by simply observing it, you can tell if you’re still panicking.
The word panic may seem dramatic, but it’s describing a stress-induced state from a mental attitude, voicing, "I’m not OK, or I can’t do this."
However, even when heart rate lowers and other metrics show the body to be recovering, your breathing may still be speedy or labored.
And if the breath hasn’t calmed, your mind hasn’t calmed.
The mind can immediately speed up heart rate and blunt neural signals to the body to act coordinated, strong, and powerful. So even if the heart rate slowed and the nervous system and energy substrates had enough time to reset, you’re unsettled mind will kill your effort on the next set or round.
This calm is primarily an overlooked point of performance and recovery, but we teach it in great detail in our JDI Barbell course.
The Signals to Observe
If you’re trying to monitor your recovery between sets by tracking heart rate, you also need to pay attention to the quality of your breath.
- When you finish a set of weights or round of conditioning, your breath speeds up alongside your heart rate.
- You may also feel that your shoulders and chest elevate with every breath, even if you usually have a healthier breathing pattern where you expand and narrow your inhale and exhale through your lower torso.
- Your body is trying to take in more oxygen to make up for what you spend during the exercise.
- The breathing muscles in the chest, neck, and shoulders cause you to get taller with our inhale and shorter when you exhale. But they’re the back-up muscles for breathing, kind of like afterburners.
- The lower torso muscles that expand and narrow the belly, sides, and lower back on inhaling and exhaling should be the dominant breathing muscles, especially when resting.
- So even though those secondary breathing muscles can and should kick on to help you take in more air while you’re pushing through intense exercise, the primary forces should be responsible for your breath before your next set or round. If this doesn’t happen, then you haven’t fully recovered.
This up and down breathing pattern signifies that your breathing is labored, and you’re still in a stressed state.
Observe the Breath's Patterns
To use the breath to decide our rest times, we have to make sure we naturally breathe horizontally where the torso widens on inhaling and narrows on exhale. If you want to dig into this, you can check out the work I’m doing with Dr. Belisa.
- If we have this excellent pattern, we can start to track how long it takes after a set to switch from using those afterburner muscles to a relaxed horizontal breath.
- There’s no need to force it; watch it and record it to use as a baseline. You can also track your heart rate to see the relationship between the two.
- Keep a log on how long it takes you to make this switch after each set until you find the average time across all sets over two weeks of workouts.
Also, make a note as to how you felt during each set or round:
- Did you feel like you were pushing just as hard each time?
- Were there sets where you waited just a little longer because you were more in touch with your breath?
- Were those sets better when you rested longer?
- Were you able to keep pushing hard for each set as fatigue crept in as it always will the longer a workout lasts?
- According to the standards I mentioned above, did you start your next set as soon as your breathing became more relaxed?
- What happens when you take a few more calm breaths even after you start breathing only horizontally before beginning the next set?
Sometimes it makes sense to shorten your rest time to train your ability to recover and push the needle on both local muscular and total endurance. Without a baseline, though, how do you challenge this?
You need to know how long it takes you to recover entirely from each type of activity. You also need to know the feeling of rebounding to a fully rested state.
Becoming more conscious of your breath's changes and quality will improve the connection and awareness you have of your body.
Often you’ll see those who throw themselves too far into the deep end, trying to work at an intensity that’s not sustainable with too high a stress level for them to recover or adapt.
They’ll plan short rest times based on nothing other than what they’ve been told makes the workout challenging. If you have no idea how long it takes for you to recover completely, you’re just guessing, and you may shorten your rest too much to sustain your effort throughout your workout.
There’s nothing wrong with testing your ceiling, and there’s a time for that, but every set isn’t your last, and you can’t treat it like it is.
If you know your baseline, though, you can set challenging rest times in that sweet spot that pushes you, challenges your ability to recover, and also keeps you moving forward.
Consider the entire picture when planning strength or conditioning training. If you plan to do eight rounds or sets of something but only get through four of them because you pushed yourself to a breaking point during the first few sets, what was the point?
You couldn't sustain the effort because you went too hard in the beginning.
In the end, you did less work, despite the frantic effort of your first couple of sets fueled by listening to loops of Rocky-themed death metal music remixes.
Sometimes training’s primary focus should be on maintaining as close to the same effort as possible for every bout. This primary focus includes all of your training sessions in a given week.
And to give every set a similar effort, you’ll need to monitor how much rest time you need after each set, circuit, or round to keep this up, and tracking your breathing can give you the details.
Track Your Breath for a Useful Metric
Let’s go over specifics. For the breath to be a helpful metric in deciding rest, we need to make sure we have an excellent horizontal breathing pattern and that our breathing muscles are strong. After this, we can start tracking the breath changes to get a clearer picture of our fitness.
Make your set, your sprint, your circuit, or your round hitting a punching bag, as usual. When it’s time to rest, don’t intentionally slow or control your breathing. Watch a few breaths.
Ask yourself how the exercise bout influenced you:
Question 1. Is Your Breathing Labored?
- Specifically, are you breathing horizontally through your torso while also through your neck, shoulders, and chest?
- Are you not broadening and narrowing at all through your belly, sides, and low back and instead only using the shoulders and chest's secondary breathing muscles?
- Record yourself or look in a mirror. Are you just getting taller and shorter as you inhale and exhale, or is your mid-section moving with it too?
A. 1. The first question's answers will tell you if your primary breathing muscles need more work and how hard the effort was.
- If you find you’re just using the secondary muscles (breathing up and down with no broadening and narrowing of your mid-section), you need more conscious practice in using the right muscles and patterns.
- And if you do practice and strengthen these muscles, your recovery ability and performance will immediately improve.
Question 2. How Do You Inhale and Exhale?
- Are you inhaling and exhaling through your nose and mouth?
- Are you inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth?
- Are you inhaling and exhaling through your nose and mouth synchronously?
A. 2. If your answer to the second question is yes, it probably means you’re using both primary and secondary muscles.
- You may still be breathing well horizontally, but if you notice your chest and shoulders actively engaging when you breathe, you have more information about how hard that set was.
- If you’re breathing through both your mouth and nose, you’re pushing yourself physiologically and will need more time to recover sufficiently.
Keep it Going
Instead of slowing down the breath, controlling it, or quickly changing it to nasal only, let yourself breathe rapidly in whatever way comes naturally. Just watch it closely for at least 10-50 seconds without interruption.
At the moment, it starts relaxing even a little, deepen and extend your inhale and exhale without changing the pace of your breath too drastically or trying to inhale only through your nose if you haven’t naturally started doing it.
Take several breaths like this until you switch to an easy more nasal-only breath without forcing it.
Track and Repeat
Have a stopwatch or clock with you, and note how long it took for the change in breath to happen. Remember to write it down. Then make a judgment about whether you feel psychologically ready to start the next set, round, run, or drill and repeat the same effort as the last.
The longer you train, the more fatigue you’re going to build regardless of what you do in between sets, but the idea is to give as consistent an effort as possible throughout the whole training session.
Create Your Baseline
Keep tracking rest times based on the changes in your breath and the effort that follows. Follow this over a couple of weeks with every training method you put yourself through, whether it's weight training or conditioning bouts.
Now you have your average rest needed for a baseline to use across the board based on your biology and condition.
Create Your Training Plan
Remember that sometimes you can challenge your conditioning (both strength and endurance) by limiting rest. With a baseline that gives you concrete evidence of how long you need to make a full recovery, you can reduce your rest strategically to challenge and improve over time.
It’s also easier to make adjustments. Say you reduce your rest time by 20%, but you’re fighting to finish your training each week. You can adjust and make it only 10% until you adapt to this first.
Re-evaluate and Adjust
Keep following your baseline or adjustments every time you train for the length of a training cycle (3-6 weeks), but stay in touch with the feelings of your breath.
Then, test your ability to recover again. Now you can set and play with rest based on this new baseline.
Just remember, this isn’t always a linear advance. When you change complexity or style of exercise and movement or become stronger and can challenge yourself with heavier loads and implements, recovery requirements can change.
But always, you can check in with the breath.